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This is not legal advice, which can only be given by an attorney admitted to practice law in your jurisdiction after hearing all of the facts and circumstances in a particular case.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Stanton's Communcation Strategy: Is the criticism justified?

This morning's St. Petersburg Times reviews criticisms of Steve Stanton's communications plan. Some City Commissioners and members of the public criticized Stanton's decision to form a "transition group" to help formulate his plan, thus leaving others out of the loop, including City Commissioners, staffers and the citizens of Largo.

The article's title points up how the failure of an organization to adopt a gender transition policy can lead to termination of an otherwise outstanding employee: "With No Transition Plan, Stanton Wrote One." As the byline notes, "Many companies have policies to protect transgender employees, but the city of Largo didn't."

The Times reporter contacted me for this story, and showed me Stanton's communications plan. I reviewed it carefully and had several phone calls with her about transition policies generally, and the merits of this plan in particular. As she notes in the article, I found it to be an excellent communications plan, and told her that it's considered "best practice" to form a committee to interface about the plans to ensure that the transition is a success for all. Of course, I also said many other things, but there are only so many points one can include in a newspaper article. So here's some of the other things I told her that are relevant to the issue of whether this transition was handled appropriately by Stanton.

There are three parts to any gender transition plan:
  • organizational policy - how does this fit with the organization's existing policies, and how should those be amended - EEO, harassment, dress code, records and identification, security, union, facilities usage (i.e. bathrooms and locker rooms) etc.
  • training - how should senior managers, HR and co-workers be informed about the organization's transgender policy, and what type of training do they need to understand what the organizational policy requires?
  • communications strategy: how to tell management, co-workers and the public (clients, customers, vendors, citizens - depending on the environment) It is critical that this part be very carefully thought out.
The plan I was shown was, of course, only a communications strategy. It was extremely well done, particularly for someone with absolutely no experience on this issue. Of course, I am sure that, as a highly-paid city manager for 14 years, Mr. Stanton has dealt with communications strategy for many other matters, and in some ways, this is no different.

In others ways, however, it is very different. In regards to communication strategy, I advise my clients that "layered communications" in a "step-by-step process" are key concepts in creating such plans. If, for example, one were to plan on advising everyone at the same time (e.g., sending out a broadcast email) as the first step in advising the organization of an employee's gender transition, one is likely to cause a tremendous amount of disruption in productivity and morale. Rather, it is important first to keep the sensitive information to a small group to insure confidentiality and proper handling. Then, integrating the communication strategy with the organization's transgender policy, and the training plan, information is gradually rolled out to senior management, line management, co-workers (at first only those in frequent workplace contact) and the organization's public (clients, customers, vendors, citizens - depending on the environment). The "Stanton plan" that I was shown contained all these elements, leading me to call it "an excellent communications plan." I have a few quibbles with the plan, of course. Number one is the insertion of more safeguards for confidentiality, because I have seen a number of cases where transgender employees thought certain people were "totally safe" to tell early on, and it turned out to be a mistake. Obviously, someone in the Largo city government spilled the beans, making a shambles of the carefully laid plans.

There are a lot of considerations here, and you can learn more at my consulting webpage at http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~jweiss/consult.htm It is important to understand that the information to be rolled out should consist only of the organization's transgender policy and its application to the specifics of the employee transition in question. The training should be "value-free" as much as possible. In other words, it should not be an attempt to convince people that gender transition and transgender identity are good. It should only advise what the policy is, what its requirements are, and what it means in the context of a specific gender transition.

I have devised a generic transition plan which I tailor for use with my clients, which are usually Fortune 500 companies and large city agencies. I don't recommend a plan of this complexity for small organizations. You can find it at http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~jweiss/policy.pdf I've discussed the issues involved in these plans in many blog posts, which you can find by clicking on the label at the bottom of this post, entitled "Management Response." There are a number of other transition plans on the web, which you can find here and here.

The Times asked me to hold off publishing the plan I was shown, so I'll wait for the go-ahead on that. They did publish excerpts from the plan, but there are a few remaining interesting tidbits. Next week I'll put in my two cents on the details of the transition plan.

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